The year is 1210 and England is ruled by King John. A furious row has broken out between the King and Pope Innocent III about who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. (Not the first time that the choice of Archbishop has caused problems for a Plantagenet King.) As John steadfastly maintains the belief that he should be able to choose who he wants to be Archbishop, the Pope has retaliated by placing the country under an Interdict. This means no church services are to be carried out, only baptisms and last rites can be performed- which save those souls from hell. But John has seized the property of the church and many priests have gone into hiding, meaning even these rites are unable to be performed.
This has driven Raffaele, Steward of Gastmere Manor, Castrato and survivor of the Crusades, into a rage. His master and good friend Sir Gerard has died, without confession and absolution of his sins. Terrified for his friend’s immortal soul, Raffaele must go to great lengths to try and save it.
Enter Elena, a villein who Raffaele hopes will be the answer to his prayers. Elena is in love with Athan, but they are unable to be married because of the Interdict. When Elena discovers she is pregnant, she is thrilled. But her joy turns to fear when she starts dreaming of approaching a screaming child. Desperate to know what the end of the dream is, she goes to a cunning woman who gives her a mandrake which will show her the rest of the dream. But mandrakes grow under the gallows, and the knowledge they provide comes at a price.
For the most part, I thought this was a great story. I loved the combination of historical fact and superstitions, becoming witchcraft in the hands of Gytha, the cunning woman. There is a sense of menace all the way through, a feeling that none of the main characters are actually in charge of their destiny.
However, there was one part that I found disappointing. The tale is meant to be from the mandrakes point of view. This is obvious to start with, but the story then slips into a normal 3rd person narrative. Every now and then you are suddenly reminded that the mandrake is telling the story, but this happened so infrequently that it would pull me out of the moment. It is an interesting premise, but for me it didn’t add anything to the book.
On the whole though, I would recommend reading this. It is a fascinating tale, set in a difficult and relatively unknown period of our history. And it definitely ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.